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Increasing punishment is not a solution to juvenile delinquency

According to University of California, Berkeley Professor Jonathan Simon, “A populist approach to penal law contributes to not be governed by crime, as by the action of punitive populism, insecurity turns into an electoral campaign weapon which promises quick solution and energetic response against crime.”

Legal sociology calls punitive populism as a way to “make believe that more severe punishment is the appropriate manner to face complex social issues, such as juvenile delinquency.”

At the Luis Carlos Pérez ”School of Critical Crime, Penal Justice and Criminal Policy” they have three analysis lines of approach which allow identifying these punitive speeches, its main hypothesis and the circumstances that form a public safety ideological approach, ignoring the juvenile reality as a deep social issue, beyond a simple legal threat.

The first line of analysis is focused on the media speech over crime and pedagogical penalty; in the second they analyze electoral approaches over the acts of minors, and the third they contrast the reality of youngsters in the penal system.

From the media speech, every once in a while we see the media speaking about impunity, insecurity and the actions that should be taken in face of adolescent criminal actions. A recent study showed that the media has turned in a scene of crime and fear advertisement and a place for uninformed opinions.

Is jail time the only solution for youngsters?

Lately, the media has literally echoed electoral proposals related to decreasing the legal age for juvenile delinquency. Given the speed data moves in the media and social media, these topics are not alien to public opinion, who ends up supporting the idea from “experts” who repeat false opinions in social media saying, for instance, that adolescents are not criminally responsible.

From the electoral campaign point of view, the approach over penalties for adolescents is not new, the demand for punitive actions or incarceration is an old topic, and has been the electoral flag to capture voters.

A follow-up of the media shows a relationship between news and TV reports with electoral proposals, such as one in 2010 and another in 2011.

In these initiatives, the approach stems from security policies instead of social policies. Showing images, emotional headlines and testimonials of isolated violence and blood, the media produces public alarm and promotes incarceration as a need.

Analyzing the list of motives on a bill of Congress of 2010 and the current proposals, there are common lies, argumentative mistakes, and confusions around penalties for adults and for youth. They want to equate the pedagogical penalty with the traditional functions for adults, forgetting the underlying issue requires greater effort and that international human rights standards restrict said options.

In this bill, they say youngsters commit grave crimes such as intentional homicide, sexual violence, robbery, blackmail, and kidnapping. Also, saying that the Colombian law, being lax, allows criminal bands to use adolescents to commit their crimes. According to this perspective, youth is not responding for the serious crimes, there is impunity and victims are not entitled to justice and repair; as a consequence, they have also vowed to reduce legal crime age to 12 years of age.

Politicized crime

In contemporary criminological research, the approaches proposed to follow the same punitive line of late in Latin America, which is the same that has jails for adults overcrowded with inhumane conditions. These are temporary and irrational, for the moment, responses which politize crime, looking for electoral purposes.

What is not seen from the policymakers is an alternative solution to the issues regarding youngsters in conflict with the penal law, are different ways to solve social conflicts.

The statistics of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute show that it is not clear that the rates of violence provoked by adolescents are greater or that they commit more serious crimes and much less, that the penalty is not hard or exemplary, in fact, some cases it is equally or crueler than that for adults, using isolation cells, physical exercise, not redeeming the penalty, not providing access to mail, total restriction to sexual freedom and use of old prisons for adults, among others.

Policy makers need to devise a public policy to delve deeper into other alternatives such as restorative justice and conflict solution without imposing penalties as synonym of justice. In cases related to drug abuse, include options which do not include incarceration and help adolescents to overcome their abuse issues, instead of acting upon direct punishment.

Finally, the paths to travel to transform penalties in the juvenile penal system are on social, economic and cultural elections and not incarceration as the magical solution to all problems.

Consejo Editorial